The time a senior cleric forced me to leave Twitter 

Three years ago, the Convention on the Constitution spent some time discussing Same Sex Marriage. It led to a wider debate about the nature and definition of marriage and whether “marriage” was the best word to describe such a partnership between two persons of the same sex.

Having listened to one such discussion, I fired off a quick tweet. I told my 500-plus followers: “I don’t care what they call it, I’m in favour of marriage equality.”

The downside of Twitter is that you can make statements in the heat of the moment that land you in hot water or that you later regret. And, after I sent it, I began to wonder and worry. Maybe I had been a little rash, maybe I should have worded it more carefully. Given that I’m a Catholic priest, I expected an instant response.

And I was right. A journalist spotted the tweet and thought it newsworthy enough to write a little story about it. The day the story appeared, my boss came to see me. He said that a senior cleric was annoyed about my tweet and had told him to instruct me to take it down. He didn’t identify who the senior cleric was but I understood it to be a bishop.

I agreed to delete the tweet. I knew I shouldn’t really have posted it given the trouble the Redemptorists were already in at the time.

But it was his next request that really took me aback. “Did you tweet something lately about mandatory celibacy being evil?” he asked.

I said I couldn’t remember offhand but it sounded like something I would say. “Well, they want you to delete that tweet, too,” he said.

I promised to do so.

And so I opened my Twitter account and deleted the statement from a few days earlier about marriage equality. Then I went searching for the tweet about mandatory celibacy. I scrolled back through what seemed like hundreds of tweets before I finally found it. It too was deleted as requested.

But I was shocked and angry. The tweet about celibacy had been posted five months previously. About 80 percent of my tweets at that time were sports related, roughly 10 percent were about politics, and the rest had to do with everything from religion to the weather. Somebody in an office somewhere had spent a considerable amount of time systematically ploughing through my tweets about Luis Suarez and Liverpool Football Club and the goings on in Dáil Éireann and Westminster in search of church-related statements of mine to be offended by.

I couldn’t believe that they would go to all that bother, and that, with church attendance falling and abuse stories still surfacing, they had so little to be bothered about. There is nothing heretical in expressing a view on mandatory celibacy. It was not as if I was denying the creed.

I was so angry and upset that I decided to leave Twitter. If I couldn’t tweet with integrity, if everything I said was being monitored from on high, if my statements were being censored, then I would not tweet at all. I decided to exit the medium quietly, and I did.

Eighteen months later I returned to Twitter. I missed being able to comment on current and sporting affairs (especially about Liverpool Football Club), but mostly I wanted to recover my voice.

Of course, silencing someone or making them retract a statement isn’t going to make the victim change his or her mind. And so, just four days before the marriage referendum last May, I wrote an op-ed piece for the Irish Times advocating a yes vote. I found it amusing and satisfying that the sub-editor chose that deleted tweet of mine as the heading for the piece: “I don’t care what they call it, I’m in favour of marriage equality.”

I got to make my point after all, only this time to far more people than would ever have read the original tweet.

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Remembering the 96 – words I delivered at a memorial service for the fallen of Hillsborough

Today I have been weeping, but not just because of the pain in my back. I have been weeping for the 96 Liverpool fans whose lives were taken from them unlawfully 27 years ago, and who were finally declared innocent only today. I have been weeping for their families too, who suffered so much but never gave up, and for all who have had to fight to have their voices heard.

Two years ago, I was privileged to preach at a memorial Mass for those 96 men and women, boys and girls, parents and children, who perished 25 years earlier at Hillsborough. These are the words I spoke that night to a church-full of fellow Liverpool fans in south Dublin, all clad in our famous red strip. (I was wearing my Luis Suarez autographed shirt under my vestments).

It’s something we have all experienced. The thrill of going to a match – the joy of anticipation as the days and the hours count down till kick off; the excitement of getting ready, of putting on the scarf or jersey that you wear with bursting pride; the buzz as you and thousands of soul mates approach the stadium – the banter, the colour, the singing, the noise, the little tingling in the tummy as the teams take their place.

And so it was on Saturday, April 15, 1989, at Hillsborough in Sheffield as Liverpool prepared to take on Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi final – another step on what we expected would be an almost routine League and Cup double for our heroes.

Thousands of Liverpool fans had travelled that day to support their team as they had done so often in the past. Fans young and old and in between; native Scousers as well as wannabe Scousers from towns and villages far from Anfield Road; seasoned supporters who had attended games too numerous to count as well as first-timers and those who only got to the occasional game.

It was going to be another great day. And luckily for those of us who weren’t able to go, the game was on the telly. We would be able to see it live.

Liverpool supporters were allocated the Leppings Lane stand. And, well, we know what happened as 3 o’clock approached. Twenty-threedecrepit, constantly jamming turnstiles had to cope with nearly 25,000 eager fans. Inadequate stewarding, disastrous policing and appalling crowd management meant that, as the numbers swelled outside, a gate was ordered opened, allowing fans into two enclosures that were already full.

Too many people squeezing into too small a space. Moments after kick-off, a crush barrier broke, and fans began to fall on top of each other. Those poor innocent, excited fans at the front – those who had taken up position early so as to be close to their heroes or who had been carried to the front by the momentum of the crowds – were trapped, the breath sucked out of them.

I was watching the game at home that day, and it took some time for the commentators and officials and for any of us to realize that something terrible was happening. And then as people began to scramble desperately, and fans were lifted by fellow supporters onto the stand overhead and others climbed over side fences onto the pitch side, and as Bruce Grobbelaar and other players tried to draw attention to what was unfolding, the game was stopped.

It was barely seven minutes after three. Seven minutes for 96 innocent people to be killed; for over 90 families to lose loved ones; for hundreds to be injured and traumatized; for thousands to be shattered, bewildered, devastated and broken.

None of us who were alive that day will ever forget it. I will never forget the sight of broken and battered bodies being ferried frantically across the pitch on make-shift stretchers; I will never forget the look of horror and disbelief on the faces of those desperately trying to help or who stood frozen in shock; or the picture of that one ambulance entering the ground far too late while others stood outside.

And then as the day went on and minutes turned to hours, hearing the tally of the dead rise relentlessly. Twenty dead, 35, 50, 70, 85, 95. Could it really be 95? (later 96 after the death of Tony Bland in 1993). How could that be possible? They were just ordinary football fans, after all. All they had done was go out to support the club they loved, and now they were dead. Men and women, boys and girls, young and old – dead. Two sisters, three pairs of brothers, and a father and son were among those who perished on that dreadful day.

Trevor and Jenny Hicks were at the game with their daughters, 19-year-old Sarah and 15-year-old Vicky. The parents had stand tickets; the girls were at the Leppings Lane end.

“On a beautiful day,” Jenny Hicks recalls, “we left home in the morning for a lovely day of football with our daughters. We came back to the house at about two o’clock the following morning without the girls.”

Their beautiful girls, their only two children, gone.

Eddie Spearrit took his 14-year-old son Adam to the game. It was to be Adam’s first ever semi-final. Like Eddie, Adam loved football. He was a good player and a keen Liverpool fan. Both had tickets for the Leppings Lane end.

Adam was killed, and Eddie still hasn’t a clue what happened to him between losing consciousness at 3pm and being admitted to hospital at 5pm.

And so it goes … 96 lives lost; so many individuals and families broken beyond repair.

It could have been any of us.

But if what happened on April 15, 1989, wasn’t devastating enough, what followed was utterly scandalous. The systematic conspiracy to blame the fans, and so cover up for the abject failure of the authorities, rubbed salt into gaping wounds, and compounded the suffering of the bereaved. For the families, it meant not just grief suffered but pain inflicted with cold calculation; not just devastation experienced but a city cruelly maligned; not just heartbreak felt but justice deliberately denied.

Thank God, at last, at last, after all these years, after botched judicial inquiries and malicious reports and altered witness statements and tabloid lies and an establishment that displayed callous contempt towards a club and its people, justice is dawning for the 96.

What has been extraordinary over the past quarter century has been the dignity of the families. Through grief and mourning, in the face of media indifference, even as their loved ones were called beasts and their reputations besmirched, they held their heads high, for they knew that right was on their side.

What has been extraordinary has been their perseverence. People like the late, brave Anne Williams, who lost her 15-year-old son Kevin, would not give up. They kept campaigning and lobbying and and insisting and demanding that the truth be told. The powers that be hoped that eventually they would fall silent, that their campaign would grow tired, that with the passage of the years people would lose interest, but the families would not be denied. They could not be denied, and thank God, their perseverence has paid off. They haven’t been denied.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel, in its report published on that great day in September 2012, concluded what we knew all along – that no Liverpool fans were responsible in any way for the disaster. Justice is dawning, and the new inquest now taking place, and the prosecutions soon to come, will be their vindication.

And so, 25 long years after that dark and dismal day, we remember our 96 lost. We celebrate their lives, so cruelly cut short, and we commend them to our God who is just and honest and loving.

Last Sunday, the hairs stood on the back of my head as our fans sang our anthem and observed the minute’s silence with impeccable intensity. It was impossible not to shed a tear – for the 96 we lost, who are our family, for the families of the 96 and their long years of struggle; and for the club in whose cause they died, and which has stood shoulder to shoulder with its family in their suffering and their campaign for justice. The call-cry of our anthem has never rung as loud or as true as it did last Sunday, as it does on this anniversary, as it will hopefully in less than four weeks time when we win the Premiership in what would be the perfect fitting tribute to the 96, and as it will every time we remember and commemorate our fallen dead:

At the end of a storm is a golden sky

And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind,

Walk on through the rain,

Tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown.

Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart

And you’ll never walk alone,

You’ll never, ever walk alone.

Medieval Vatican practices broke my heart

My life changed forever on a sunny afternoon in late May 2011. I was about to head out on a walk when I happened to run into my religious superior, who asked me if he could talk to me for a minute. No problem there. But what he proceeded to tell me left me flabbergasted.

He said that a discussion had been ongoing for some time about my role as editor of Reality magazine, the monthly publication of the Irish Redemptorists. He said that people in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the chief enforcer of orthodoxy in the Vatican, were not happy with some of the content of the magazine, and that the Redemptorist superior general in Rome had been instructed to inform the superior in Ireland that I was to be removed from my position as editor with a month’s notice.

I tried to take all this in but was dumbfounded. It couldn’t be true. It sounded like a joke.

My superior went on to say that both he and the Redemptorist head in Rome had lobbied hard on my behalf and that they had been able to hammer out a compromise. I could remain as editor subject to five conditions: I could not publish anything that was 1) supportive of the ordination of women, 2) critical of mandatory celibacy, 3) in favour of general absolution, 4) opposed to the church’s stance on homosexuality, and 5) could be seen as disrespectful of the person of the Holy Father. Furthermore, the content of every issue would have to be approved by a censor prior to publication.

I was told that all of this had been hammered out in talks at the highest level over the previous several weeks, and that I was being informed of it now because the Redemptorist head in Rome was coming to see me in two days’ time. A cover story would be invented to explain the sudden appearance in Dublin of the superior general of the Redemptorists.

I was also told that I had to keep this information to myself, that it was highly confidential, and that I shouldn’t talk about it even to my family and friends.

And that was it. I went on my walk with my head spinning.

The superior general did visit for a couple of days and he told me the story from scratch, how one day a file appeared on his desk from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) with a list of allegations/findings against me and a demand that I be removed from office. The superior general could not have been nicer to me during that visit, and expressed amazement time and again at the shoddy case that the CDF had put together against me. He had met several times with Cardinal Levada, head of the CDF, and the best compromise they could reach was to leave me in office but under the restrictions outlined above.

Again the importance of secrecy was emphasized. I was not to talk to anyone about it. It was not a matter for public consumption.

And that was it.

During those first few days, I felt numb. I was bombarded with so much information that was shocking to me, but it was almost as if they were talking about someone else, not me. I couldn’t understand why people in the Vatican would be getting their knickers in a twist about a small magazine published on the periphery of Europe. I couldn’t believe that people would spend time trawling through back issues looking for evidence to build or substantiate a case against me. I couldn’t believe that the head of the CDF would himself become personally involved. And, most of all, I couldn’t believe that my case had been discussed for weeks or months without anyone talking to me about it. I was allowed to go about my daily business totally oblivious to what was happening.

It took a while for the enormity and injustice of what happened to me to sink in. I grant that there was a small bit of me that was chuffed that the Vatican had noticed our magazine and got themselves in a lather over it. But then I began to feel angry and betrayed. I was angry not so much that self-appointed defenders of the faith had reported me to the Vatican but that faceless bureaucracts had taken these delators so seriously. I was angry that they would begin a process against me without ever letting me know I was being investigated.

How can you defend yourself if you don’t know you are on trial? How can you defend yourself if you don’t know who your accusers are? How can you defend yourself when your fate has been decided even before you discover you have been on trial? It is an utterly unjust and unchristian system.

I couldn’t believe that I had been walking around for weeks, doing my work in the office and in the parish, while all the while my loyalty and my future was being discussed behind my back. I met my superior and the others on his leadership team many times during those weeks, at meals, on the corridors, out and about, and none said a word to me about what was going on. I know that they were in a difficult situation too and they were were not allowed to talk about it but it just goes to show how flawed and unjust the CDF process is. One is tried, found guilty and sentenced, before you even know you were on trial. And yet next Sunday’s gospel will tell us that people will “know we are Christians by our love.”

I felt angry and hurt that this is how the church would treat me after I had devoted my whole life to it. The powers that be in Rome would accept the word of (anonymous) delators against my solid record of a quarter century of loving service of the church. It took a few weeks before I started to cry whenever I thought about it. Tears of anger, shock, self-pity and betrayal. I had given my life to the church, and this is how I had been repaid. Any criticism I had made of the church was out of love, and they didn’t even have the decency either to ignore the delations or give me a chance to reply to them before they handed down sentence. They didn’t give me the chance to defend myself, privately or publicly.

All communication was through my superiors. The CDF people never communicate directly with the person under investigation. They knew my address, they knew my email, they could find my phone number, but they always go through higher channels. They never dignify the culprit with a direct and personal response. I don’t think it’s how Jesus would have done it. Something is rotten in the state of the CDF, and while the current people and processes remain in place, nothing will change. Priests, sisters and brothers will continue to be treated as less than human, and will have their lives hurt or broken.

It’s been almost two years since I woke up with chronic lower back pain that has never gone away. I wonder how much of it is due to the way I was treated by the CDF? I think the stress that experience caused me is one of the main reasons why today I am broken in body as well as in spirit. Stress takes a toll, injustice has a price, and I am paying it every day.

Today a group of 15 people who have fallen foul of the CDF have published a letter we sent to Rome asking for reform of the system. The letter was sent about seven weeks ago. As one would expect, there has been no formal acknowledgement or reply. I won’t hold my breath.

Media Release

Embargoed until Wednesday 20 April 2016

 

Catholics decry modern-day inquisition

 

An international group of Catholic sisters, priests and lay people, all of whom have been ‘delated’ (i.e. reported) and subjected to ‘examination’ by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), formerly known as the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition, have said that this body “doesn’t reflect the gospel values of justice, truth, integrity and mercy that the Catholic Church professes to uphold” and that are called for by Pope Francis. They also say that the CDF “acts in ways that are out of keeping with contemporary concepts of human rights, accountability and transparency that the world expects from the Christian community and which the Catholic Church demands from secular organizations.”

 

“Can you get justice from a body that acts as investigator, accuser, judge and jury and then imposes the penalty?” spokesman for the group, church historian Paul Collins asks. “And then, if an appeal is made, it is heard by the same people,” Collins adds. The accused have to deal with secrecy and anonymity, often having to negotiate with the CDF at third or fourth hand via a network of superiors and bishops. “People are not informed as to who accused them,” Collins says, “there is no presumption of innocence, the accused don’t know who is judging them with prosecutors acting as judges; they don’t even know who their defense counsel is. They are usually never given a chance to defend themselves verbally and in person. Letters go unanswered for months, or are “lost”.

 

“Many of those investigated find the process completely draining, isolating and exhausting because it can involve excommunication and exclusion from ministry. It seems designed to wear you down psychologically. It is completely alien to the values of Christ and the gospels,” Collins says.

 

The group of fifteen, which includes two bishops, prominent theologians, people working in creative areas of ministry, and Catholic writers and broadcasters, have written to Pope Francis and to the Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, asking for an open discussion about the procedures of the Congregation and calling for approaches that respect human rights and the need for free speech, pluralism, transparency and accountability within the church community. Among those who have signed the letter are two pastorally effective and highly respected bishops, Bishops Patrick Power and William Morris of Australia, one of the United States’ most influential moral theologians, Father Charles Curran, long-term minister to gay people and Co-Founder of New Ways Ministry, Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, prominent systematic theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham University, New York, Spanish Sister Teresa Forcades, OSB, Benedictine nun and physician, Irish communicators and writers Fathers Tony Flannery, CSsR and Brian D’Arcy, CP, and American Father Roy Bourgeois, priest and human rights activist.

 

One of those recently investigated by the CDF, Father Tony Flannery, says that “Under the last two popes, as the Church became increasingly centralized, the Magisterium was understood as the Vatican, or, more specifically, the Curia, and in particular the pre-eminent body within the Curia, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But an older understanding, which was central to the Second Vatican Council, has a more complex, wider view of what constitutes the Magisterium. According to this perspective, it consists of the Vatican, the bishops of the universal Church, the body of theologians, and, most significantly of all, the sensus fidelium, the good sense of the ordinary Catholic faithful. The Council goes so far as to say that unless a teaching is accepted by the consensus of the faithful it cannot be considered a defined teaching. This is the kind of theology we are trying to get through to the CDF.”

 

The letter to the CDF’s Cardinal Müller was sent in late-February 2016. As of 18 April 2016 no acknowledgement or response had been received from the CDF. “This,” Collins says, “is par for the course. They don’t even acknowledge letters from people they have ‘examined’ This follows a pattern that is typical of the clerical culture of the church.”

 

Pope Francis has said that: “Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, concerns, investigation, but it is alive, knows how to disturb, and knows how to animate. It does not have a rigid face. It has a body that moves and develops’ (To Italian bishops and Laity, 9 November 2015). In his recent Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia in response to the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis has also said: “Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching, or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth.”

 

Our experience is that the Congregation has some distance to go to live up to the Pope’s expectations and his calls for a better approach to deciding doctrinal matters.

 

Contacts:

Sister Jeannine Gramick 1301 864304

Fr Roy Bourgeois 1 706-682-5369

Dr Paul Collins 61 412 550 370 (cell) or 61 2 6262 6159

Fr Tony Flannery 353 8768 14699

Fr Marciano Vidal

Attachment: The New Process

 

A New Process for the Church and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

 

 

He who is the object of an enquiry should be present at the process, and, unless absent through contumacy, should have the various headings of the enquiry explained to him, so as to allow him the possibility of defending himself. As well, he is to be informed not only of what the various witnesses have accused him of, but also of the names of those witnesses. (Fourth Lateran Council, 1215)

 

 

Introduction

 

Nowadays it is widely agreed in the church that the processes and procedures of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) are contrary to natural justice and in need of reform. They represent the legal principles, processes and attitudes of the absolutism of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. They don’t reflect the gospel values of justice, truth, integrity and mercy that the church professes to uphold. They are out of keeping with contemporary concepts of human rights, accountability and transparency that the world expects from the Christian community and which the Catholic Church demands from secular organizations. The purpose of this proposed new approach is to reflect the attitude of Jesus (Matthew 18:15-17) and to integrate values that the world sees as basic to a functioning, civilized society.

 

Principles Underlying any New CDF Process

 

Underlying any church procedures must be a set of principles that involve a just and equitable process, accountability on the part of the CDF and Bishops’ Conferences, the presumption of sincerity, innocence, and loyalty to the church on the part of the person being investigated, as well as transparency and the wider involvement of the local Catholic community and the Synod of Bishops representing the universal church. The process appended to this set of principles tries to avoid some of the worst aspects of the present CDF’s investigations as experienced by the signatories and others who have been involved in dealing with the CDF over the last decades.

 

1 The basic principle must be to avoid anonymous denunciation by person(s) unknown to those being investigated. By naming them publicly, you stop frivolous claims by often totally unqualified individuals or organizations.

 

2 The same applies to the secret CDF appointed consulters. Consulters need to be named and their qualifications or otherwise in the area under consideration, be scrutinized. This also gives the one being investigated a chance to know the biases and expertise/training or otherwise of each of the consulters appointed by the CDF.

 

3 The whole issue of enforced secrecy and the often crippling isolation of the person being investigated must be circumvented by the CDF being made to deal directly and personally with them. They should be no longer be dealt with at third and fourth hand via a network of bishops and superiors – who might even have been the primary accuser of the person being investigated in the first place.

 

4 People being investigated have very often found that their work is inaccurately or unfairly interpreted by CDF consulters, or sentences or opinions are taken totally out of context and that the qualifications that they have made are completely ignored. Consulters they have never heard of, or are completely unknown to them, become the sole arbiters of the correct interpretation of their work. Even opinions they don’t hold are attributed to them. The involvement of the persons being investigated and their counsel from the beginning to some extent circumvents this. It also makes sure that consulters, whose sole experience is of the Roman schools of theology with its emphasis on propositional approaches to doctrinal positions, are challenged, and are not accepted as normative for those working on the prophetic edge of theological and ministerial frontiers.

 

5 People under investigation have often complained of the sheer rudeness and lack of even basic politeness – let alone Christian charity – on the part of CDF personnel. Letters are ignored, or lost. Processes are dragged out in an attempt to wear down the resistance of those being investigated. Even extremely sick or dying people have been investigated and forced to respond to often silly accusations. Strict time limits and direct personal face-to-face communication would circumvent this. With supporting counsel present and the knowledge that all documentation and the names of accusers and all personnel involved will be revealed to the wider Catholic community and the media will bring about at least some measure of accountability which at the present moment is totally lacking in CDF processes.

 

6 The process must prevent the same people acting as investigators, prosecutors and judges. By referring on-going cases to the Synod of Bishops the process takes decision-making out of the hands of CDF, and re-situates the views under investigation within the broader cultural context in which they were first articulated.

 

7 The wider community of theologians, the faithful people of God and the sensus fidelium are involved in the discernment of the faith and belief of the church. No longer should the CDF and its Rome-based advisers be the sole arbiters of correct doctrine and belief.

 

8 The process should be no longer characterized by the absolutist presumptions of an antiquated legal system that has nothing to do with the Gospel. The process should be tempered by the mercy and forgiveness of God, and by the open dialogue that should characterize the community of Jesus. It integrates something of the contemporary emphasis on human rights and the need for free speech, pluralism, transparency and accountability within the church community.

 

Signatures:

 

Dr Paul Collins, writer and broadcaster, Australia

Rev Charles Curran, Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, USA

Rev Roy Bourgeois, priest and activist, USA

Rev Brian D’Arcy CP, writer and broadcaster, Ireland

Rev Tony Flannery CSsR, writer and broadcaster, Ireland

Sister Teresa Forcades, OSB, Benedictine nun and physician, Spain

Sister Jeannine Gramick, SL, Loretto Sister, Co-Founder, New Ways Ministry, USA

Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, Distinguished Professor of Theology, Fordham University, New York, USA

Professor Paul Knitter, Emeritus Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture, Union Theological Seminary, New York, USA

Rev Gerard Moloney, CSsR, Editor, Ireland

Bishop William Morris, Bishop Emeritus of Toowoomba, Australia

Rev Ignatius O’Donovan, OSA, Church Historian, Ireland

Rev Owen O’Sullivan, OFM Cap, Chaplain and Writer, Ireland

Bishop Patrick Power, retired Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra- Goulburn, Australia

Rev Marciano Vidal, CSsR, Former Ordinary Professor, Pontifical University Comillas, Madrid, Spain, Extraordinary Professor, Alphonsian Academy, Rome

 

 

 

 

Francis reminds me why I am a Christian

Yesterday Pope Francis pulled off yet another surprise. At the end of his five-hour trip to the island of Lesbos to highlight the plight of migrants who are detained there and in similar centres across Southern Europe, he brought 12 Syrian refugees back to Rome aboard his papal airliner. According to reports, the three lucky families, all Muslim, had been chosen by lot from among the 3000 people held on the Greek island.

The pope expressed the hope that the world would “respond in a way worthy of our common humanity” as attitudes to the refugee crisis continue to harden in Europe and elsewhere. Francis’ actions were a calculated attempt to draw attention to the crisis, which he said was the worst since the Second World War. He wanted to offer hope to people left with nothing but the tiniest of hope, and also to prick the conscience of governments who now want to build walls as their preferred response to this humanitarian catastrophe.

Some will accuse the pope of meddling in politics and dismiss his gesture as yet another example of his genius for good PR. But what the pope is doing is simply putting the parable of the Good Samaritan into practice. He is trying to demonstrate that Christian love is about far more than sexual ethics or who should use public restrooms (as some Christians in the United States in particular seem to think) – it is about concrete love of neighbour irrespective of who he or she is. 

Francis reminds me of the reason I wanted to become a clergyman. The example of people like Jean Donovan and Oscar Romero, martyred for standing in solidarity with the poor of El Salvador, is what motivated me as an idealistic teenager to give my life to the church. Not lace or the allure of dressing in fancy garments, but grace and a message of hope and love. Not a desire to find refuge in a ‘smaller, purer church’ in combat with the modern world, but to be part of a church on the streets engaging with people as we find them.

That’s what Francis tries to do and teach. Thank God for him and his example.

Could we really continue to feel pain after death?

A medic said something to me the other day that really made me stop and think. I was talking about my pain and how I could understand why some people would choose to die rather than live with constant chronic pain. The medic’s reply went something like: “But we don’t know what happens on the other side. We don’t know if the pain ends once you die.”

I was taken aback. Could what he said be true? Could it really be that your chronic pain would remain even after you had breathed your last? That one’s soul or spirit or life force would continue to experience suffering even after the physical body was no more? Maybe that’s what Hell is, but I can imagine nothing more unjust or wrong.

When I told somebody what the medic had said, that person came up with an interesting analogy that also gave me pause for thought. Why do some people experience phantom pain in a limb that has been amputated? The limb isn’t part of the body any more, yet the person feels terrible pain where the limb used to be. Why is that? And might the same thing happen on a larger scale after an aching body breathes its last?

It’s too horrific to contemplate. And if there is a creator, as I believe there to be, why would a creator punish anyone in that cruel way? Why should I continue to suffer after death, when, through no fault of my own, I have already suffered so much in life? It goes against every concept of justice and decency. It goes against any notion of a loving God. I’d rather that there was no afterlife than think I would not be allowed to Rest in Peace.

A (reasonably) clear conscience 

I made an examination of conscience last night. I scrolled back through the years to try to assess whether I have been a good human being and a good priest.

It was prompted by a programme on the BBC about Jimmy Saville, and the appalling impact sexual abuse has on its victims. The documentary showed footage of Saville’s almost state-like funeral, with mourning crowds lining the streets and a church full of robed clergy and solemn dignitaries listening to eulogies that were fulsome in their praise of the legendary ‘entertainer’. And then we were introduced to some of the women who had been abused by Saville, and whose lives have been destroyed by him. Their pain and anger still rage, as does their bitter disappointment that he was never made to account for his crimes while he was still alive. His victims would never have their day in court.

I was left wondering how Saville, a regular churchgoer, must have felt about himself and his crimes as his end drew near. Did he feel any remorse? Did he have any sense of the devastation he had caused to so many people? All the lives he had ruined? All the innocence and innocents he had destroyed? How tormented was he by his actions or was he tormented at all? Did he worry about judgement day?

It put me thinking about my own life and my deeds and misdeeds. I had a happy childhood and a pleasant experience of school. I don’t think I hurt anyone, at least to any serious degree, by anything I said or did in my youth. Same with my college and seminary days. Yes, I was difficult to live with sometimes. Yes, I could be moody and I definitely upset people more than once by my words and actions (I remember being rebuked by my formator for having dogmatic and authoritarian tendencies!) but I never hurt anyone deeply or damaged anyone beyond repair.

And I think the same is true of my life as a clergyman. I can recall four or five occasions when people were hurt or offended by something I said in a homily or mission sermon, but it was always due to poor use of language or lack of sensitivity on my part rather than a deliberate attempt by me to cause offense. 

I can recall a lot of phone calls and letters over the years from people angry at something I wrote or published. Some of them were angry enough to report me to Rome and get me in trouble with the Vatican. While I know I could have formulated some of my pronouncements more carefully, I also know that anything I ever wrote or published was out of love for the church and without malicious intent.

I think back on my ministry in the confessional and in one-to-one encounters with people, and while I might have lost patience with a few people over the years, I always tried to put mercy before cold adherence to the letter of the law. 

I have been far from the perfect priest. I have struggled with keeping all four of my vows, I have let my anger at the institutional church get the better of me at times, I have struggled to forgive, to pray and to love unconditionally. I certainly haven’t always practiced what I preached, but I can say that I have not irreparably damaged anyone or destroyed a life. When my time comes, I think I can face my maker with reasonable confidence on that score at least.

Ready to meet my maker

Next Friday I am having yet another medical intervention to try to calm my chronic back pain. A series of Botox injections will hopefully ease the muscle spasms in my back. At least that’s the plan.

But whether it will make any difference I am not at all sure. I have had so many procedures over the pasts 18 months, so many false dawns, that I am afraid to hope anymore. I have had so many interventions, and all I have to show for it is a titanium bolt and seven useless screws. My pain is more intense now than at any time in the past and I feel broken. At this stage I feel that the life has been sucked out of me and I’m not able to endure much more.

Over the years I have known and admired people who had chronic pain. I think of a Redemptorist confrere of mine and his sister who both suffered for years with arthritic pain that left them wheelchair bound. They were always so phlegmatic, so serene in face of adversity. I don’t know how they were able to do it. I’m not as heroic or as stoical or saintly as they were. I can’t envisage spending the rest of my life like this. I know I won’t be able. 

I cling on to the hope that maybe the Botox will do something. But it’s a long, long wait until Friday.